Why Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Gamble Paid Off

  • Photo: Jon Friedman

In the fall of 1975, Bob Dylan launched The Rolling Thunder Revue and took one of the biggest risks of his six-decade career.

It was a resounding success.

The six-week tour of New England and other locales has been captured in a new documentary from Netflix entitled “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.” (Previously, some of Dylan’s film work had such vague names as Dont Look Back — no apostrophe — Eat the Document and Masked and Anonymous, but Netflix liked having all of the principals in the title. Membership indeed has its privileges!)

The rehearsals and concerts are beautifully presented in a 14-disc package from Sony/Legacy.

Looking back, Dylan took a big chance by charging into this tour. He wanted to return to his un-corporate roots and have fun playing rock and roll tunes, after being tied for more than a decade to the oppressive label, The Voice of a Generation. Dylan, shrewdly sizing up the pitfalls of idolatry at an early age, had flatly rejected this highly inconvenient tag. He wanted to boogie with his friends.

Dylan impulsively launched The Rolling Thunder Revue, a rather rag-tag endeavor for a musical star who had triumphantly filled North America’s biggest hockey and basketball venues just the year before. He favored playing on college campuses. He sang out of his head, with more concern for reaching the balcony than being known for precision and artistry. He wore extensive makeup.

The risks? Dylan, for the first time, went on tour without The Band backing him up. He was coming off back-to-back hits with the albums “Planet Waves” and “Blood on the Tracks,” so he had a lot of recent success to live up to. The reviews for his Tour ‘74 extravaganza (when tickets cost a then-astronomical $8.50 apiece) had been a critical and commercial bonanza for Dylan.

By touring in 1975, Dylan had hoped, too, to shine a light on the plight of imprisoned middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who had been convicted of murder (Dylan had read Carter’s autobiography and met him in the New Jersey prison and came away convinced of Carter’s innocence). Dylan co-wrote and recorded the song “Hurricane,” pointedly the first song on his next album, “Desire.” Displaying a fire that the world hadn’t heard since his 1966 world tour, Dylan sang like a demon on “Hurricane.”

But a song about injustice and a black man also represented a sizable risk for Dylan’s reputation. His 1971 song “George Jackson,” about a Black Panther leader who had been shot and killed earlier that year by prison guards, had been dismissed by fans and critics as an insincere attempt to get the public off Dylan’s back. Dylan, they alleged, hoped this “return to protest” would restore his street credibility, but it didn’t.

So, why, then, did Rolling Thunder work? Dylan’s singing is the main reason. He is completely engaged in this music. In later years, critics and fans would chide Dylan for his wildly inconsistent performances on stage to the point of mailing it in (I’ve seen these dreary performances many times).

But in 1975, he was right there — on every song, at every stop. Maybe he felt freer, without the pressure of performing with The Band in tow. Maybe he loved singing the new songs, which would later comprise the Desire album. Maybe he loved playing to college kids on campuses. Maybe he loved singing again with Joan Baez and on the same bill as such musicians as Mick Ronson, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakley, T-Bone Burnett, Rob Stoner and Howie Wyeth.

You’ll see all of the joy and commitment on Dylan’s face and in his voice during the Scorsese film. My one gripe: I felt there were too many cutaways, when I just wanted to hear Dylan at one of his creative peaks. I didn’t need anything else. Sometimes he seemed like an extra in his own film.

No matter, really. This is a film worth exploring if you love Bob Dylan’s music and want to catch him at a time when he took one of his biggest creative gambles — and made it work.

Jon Friedman is the author of “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for Reinvention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution.”

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